By Steve Kelman

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More on innovation in government

I spent most of today at a small authors' meeting for a volume a number of Kennedy School and other professors are preparing (to be published by Brookings next year) on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the Ford Foundation/Kennedy School of Government awards program for innovations in American government. This award was an early harbinger of an emerging interest in trying to improve government performance through encouraging government agencies to look for better ways to do their jobs.

One interesting, and sad, random fact that came out today is that it turns out that the number of federal agency applications for this award has been steadily declining over the last few years, and this year the number of federal government finalists for the award is down to an all-time low of only one.

I've been posting about the sad evidence in the procurement community of a plummeting appetite for innovation in an environment where mistakes are the ultimate sin -- since, when you try something new, you risk making a mistake. There were some thoughtful responses to my recent post on a talk I gave recently to a government procurement conference, suggesting alternative explanations for what I reported.

Like any individual "datapoint" (to use academic language)-- and like the facts I've noted on this topic in earlier posts -- the record low number of federal government finalists in the Ford/Kennedy School innovations award has possible explanations other than a declining innovation climate in the federal government. But after a while, different datapoints from different perspectives begin accumulating, and alternative explanations become less plausible.

A decline in the climate for innovation is sad for good government, and it's a disaster for prospects of encouraging bright young people to become the next generation of public servants. The good young people whom we want to attract for government will be repelled by a bureaucratic, innovation-hostile environment (a poll last year for the Partnership for Public Service found that college students rated "too much bureaucracy" as the leading reason not to work in government). The forces that are promoting this innovation-hostile environment bear a heavy moral responsibility for undermining good government. You know who you are.

On a completely different topic: I wanted to remind readers of something I wrote a while ago, which is that I am generally trying my best to post on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Posted by Steve Kelman on May 31, 2007 at 12:08 PM


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